Tuesday, June 29, 2021

A Spring thaw? (1988)

From the June 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard

To many in the "peace movement”, it seems that the tide is finally turning. The focus for their optimism is none other than former Cold Warrior Ronald Reagan, who has instructed his negotiators to "go for gold", and hammer out a 50 per cent cut in the superpowers' nuclear arsenals. They should not be so easily fooled. Behind the pacific rhetoric lies a grimmer calculus which reflects the new realities facing American capitalism in the 1980s.

In the drive to restore profitability to US industry, business interests have clamoured for cuts in the $200bn budget deficit in the new financial year. As a result the Pentagon will be receiving $33bn less than it anticipated and funding for "Star Wars" will be slashed. Forced into a corner, the military and their political allies have felt compelled to change their tactics, and the apparently paradoxical result has been a new found enthusiasm for arms control. To see how this has come about, we will take a brief excursion into the bizarre world of nuclear strategy.

To the military mind, there is no such thing as an "unusable" military weapon, and from the earliest days of the US "deterrent”, the Airforce developed plans for massive first strikes against the USSR. General Curtis Le May stated this quite openly in front of a presidential committee in the 1950s. when it was put to him that pre-emptive nuclear strikes were not official US policy. "I don’t care", he replied, "it’s my policy. That's what I'm going to do." This remains the dominant view in the highest reaches of the US military-political establishment. Colin Gray, for example, now a senior presidential adviser, wrote in 1980 that the US should "identify war aims that in the last resort would contemplate the destruction of Soviet political authority and the emergence of a postwar world order compatible with western values". Nuclear weapons were to be treated in the same way as conventional ones had been in previous eras; as a means to destroy opposing military forces and compel compliance with the interests of the victorious national ruling class.

The paradox of using nuclear weapons to accomplish political objectives, however, was that their sheer destructive power could result only in genocidal war. which could have no rational political use. This was the conclusion of the Harmon Committee, which examined the feasibility of a pre-emptive strike against the Soviet Union in 1948-9.

What was needed, from the point of view of the military planners, were "cleaner" weapons, which could selectively "take out" discrete military targets such as silos, troop assembly points etc. whilst avoiding large-scale "collateral" damage. It has been estimated that 20 million deaths is an "acceptable" level for civilian casualties in this sort of scenario. In recent years, the technological developments necessary to allow such nuclear war fighting strategies have begun to emerge.

In the dehumanised language of nuclear mass murder, the ability of a warhead to destroy a hard target, such as a silo, is measured in terms of "lethality", or “K". “K" is dependent primarily upon how close to the target a warhead is delivered. The first generation of US ICBMs had an accuracy (acronym "CEP") of some 1000-4200 FT. giving a lethality of between 9 and 12. Some meaning is given to these figures when we compare them with the comparable ones for the new generation of US missiles. The MX and Trident D5 have accuracies of just 300 FT and lethalities of 200. whilst Cruise missiles will land less than 200 FT from their targets with a lethality of 300. US scientists are now working on manoeverable terminal guidance warheads which will have accuracies of 120 FT. as well as "earthquake bombs" which bury themselves in the ground before exploding. In practical terms, these missiles can destroy with virtual certainty the hardest of Russian silos. Moreover, simply throwing more of the earlier missiles at a target does not compensate for lack of accuracy, since the first missile to arrive over a target would destroy those following even a split second behind. Greater accuracy, with fewer missiles means greater certainty of a clean kill. Military strategists have even turned the controversy about the "nuclear winter" to their own advantage, by claiming that the theory is only applicable to attacks on cities by the older, indiscriminate nuclear missiles. Military targets such as silos, it is argued, are located in wilderness regions, which would not throw up the debris associated with burning cities. This form of attack is undoubtedly the more ecologically sound!

It will by now be clear that far fewer of the new missiles are necessary in order to pursue an effective nuclear war-fighting strategy, and that the older ones are effectively obsolete in military terms. It is precisely these older missiles that the US will be "sacrificing" in any major arms reduction agreement. This, however, is only half the story. There is another very good military reason for supporting a major cut in the superpowers" nuclear arsenals, and this has to do with the technological limitations of the "star wars" (SDI) programme.

When SDI was first conceived, it was intended as an integral part of a war-fighting strategy; it was to be the shield behind which the US could shelter from Soviet retaliation after delivering its own first strike. Insuperable technical problems have been encountered in attempting to develop such a device, however, and military planners recently conceded that it is not a feasible objective for the foreseeable future. Instead of a massive space security shield protecting US cities, they now plan only to protect vital military installations, and still reckon only to be able to destroy 30 per cent of an all-out Soviet strike, or some 1,300 warheads.

There is more than one way to skin a cat. however. Suppose that the Soviet nuclear arsenal could be cut in half, to some 2,800 land-based warheads and 600 submarine launched ones. Suppose also that the new US missiles could be expected to destroy even half of the remaining forces in a first strike (bearing in mind that five out of six Soviet submarines are stuck in port at any one time and therefore highly vulnerable. This leaves the number of warheads available for a retaliatory Soviet strike at a number which the new slimmed-down SDI might be expected to deal with. The enthusiasm of the military for a treaty which would cut both sides' arsenals by 50 per cent whilst leaving the US free to develop and deploy its own devastating new weapons is thus readily apparent.

The change in the US approach to the Geneva arms talks, therefore, has nothing to do with the changing whims of its leaders, and still less to do with the influence of the peace movement. Rather, it has to do with material factors; the weakness of American capitalism, which necessitates cutbacks in non-competitive production, and the capabilities and limitations of the available technology. This much is conceded by Professor Paul Rogers, a leading spokesman for CND, in a recent article in the New Statesman (8 April). What, however, is to be done about it? Rogers is reduced to calling for yet more campaigning for a test ban and a freeze in the deployment of new weapons; this is apparently "the best that can be hoped for". But military power and its related technology are the necessary accompaniments of the rivalry between competing capitalist and state capitalist blocks. The murderous technologies and strategies of nuclear war do not have an existence outside of this struggle, and cannot be eliminated without first tackling the antisocial system of which they are simply the most terrifying symbols.
Andrew Thomas